Athlete Activists Making An Impact

Athletes in Australia and around the world have long used their influence and platform to highlight injustice within sport and society.

We've put together a list of the most notable examples of athletes taking a stand on issues and making an impact.

Australian athlete activists

Nicky Winmar

It is one of the most iconic Australian sporting images, indigenous AFL footballer Nicky Winmar standing up to racial abuse and cementing his name in Australian sporting history.

After copping racist taunts from the Collingwood crowd at Victoria Park in 1993, he lifts his St Kilda guernsey and points to his chest to declare ‘I’m black and I’m proud to be black’.

Winmar's move sparked a debate that shed a harsh spotlight on racism in football and forced the AFL, fans and the nation to confront their prejudices head-on.

Athlete Activists Nicky Winmar

David Pocock

The professional rugby player has earned the title of being a real man, having spent his career standing up for women in sport, the LGBT+ community, climate change, the hearing impaired as well as developing communities in Zimbabwe.

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A proud feminist, he regularly attends women's sport, showing his support online and rallying behind his favourite teams, even wearing his Canberra United w-League teams Jersey regularly to show his support for women in sport.

He also delivered this sensational smackdown on Twitter, defending his actions and standing up for the hearing impaired community.

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Cathy Freeman

Her name itself is associated with greatness, not only did she light the Olympic Cauldron at the 2000 Sydney Olympics but she won Gold in her signature 400m event.

She became a symbol of reconciliation and unity when she took her victory lap carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags, a move that caused widespread controversy at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

She went on to found the Cathy Freeman Foundation, an initiative to close the educational gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids by helping them access educational opportunities.

She was named Australian of the Year in 1998 and in 2001 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia.

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Michael Long

An all-time great of the AFL, Michael Long was a strong advocate for Indigenous rights.

One of his greatest on-field moments playing for Essendon came during the 1995 Anzac Day game against Collingwood, where he became the first Indigenous player to highlight racial abuse by reporting a player for offensive language. His actions sparked the AFL to create a rule aimed at stopping racial and religious vilification.

Long famously went on to walk from Melbourne to Canberra to meet the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, to discuss indigenous communities and raise awareness of issues facing Indigenous Australians. Coined 'The Long Walk', it became a highly successful charity, raising funds for Indigenous charities and programs.

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Adam Goodes

Another famous Indigenous AFL player, Goodes has always been outspoken on Indigenous rights and is well known for standing up against racism in the community. Post-football he went on to co-found an Indigenous Football academy with teammate Michael O'Loughlin.

He also works towards raising money to provide scholarships for Indigenous students to attend private schools.

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Jimmy Bartel

Another AFL legend for our list, Jimmy Bartel has been a long time campaigner against domestic violence. He famously didn't shave for an entire football season to raise awareness of domestic violence and encourage people to talk about it.

He also helped to launch the national Support a Friend campaign, which is set up by the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service, 1800RESPECT.

His work on and off field is inspiring, the beard stunt certainly got people talking about the issue and voicing his own experiences with domestic violence inspired many.

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Anthony Mundine

The controversial athlete has used his influence to relay the history of Aboriginal political activism, focusing largely on that which developed in Redfern, Sydney in the 1970s.

He quit Rugby League citing a racist subculture that he believed had been an issue from the beginning of his career in the early 90s. He moved onto boxing where he went on to win several World Titles.

Mundine has proudly positioned himself as an Aboriginal activist, and celebrates the fact that this sporting success has allowed him to project a political message.

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Global athlete activists

Tommie Smith (USA), Peter Norman (Australia) and John Carlos (USA)

One of the most iconic images that springs to mind is this one from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

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Tommie Smith (USA, Gold), Peter Norman (Australia, Silver) and John Carlos (USA, Bronze) took to the podium after their 200m final and made history. As the American National Anthem began to play Smith an Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in the Human Rights salute. It was a move of open rebellion and a clear symbol of resistance and defiance.

Carlos likened the moment to being in the "eye of a hurricane", the silence in that moment was deafening but then the abuse rained down.

Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US team and Olympic Village by the International Olympic Committee however kept their medals and went down as heroes of both the Human Rights and Black Power movement.

Australian Peter Norman joined them wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, telling them "I will stand with you."

While Carlos and Smith were celebrated for their efforts later down the track Norman was shunned by his home country and ostracized from the sport he loved. He was overlooked for subsequent Olympic Games despite qualifying comfortably.

It was only recently that there was an apology to the late record holder with the Australian Government apologising for their failure to fully recognise his inspirational role in the 1968 event.

Miami Heat

LeBron James and the Miami Heat used their celebrity status to protest the shooting of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot while walking home wearing a hoodie.

The team took to social media donning hoodies in solidarity with the family of Martin and his community. Using the hashtag #Stereotyped and #WeWantJustice they sparked a movement seeking justice for the unprovoked killing of the teenager.

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The online world followed suit, posting selfies in hoodies and similar hashtags.

Muhammad Ali

Arguably one of the biggest names in boxing and political activism he rose to international prominence during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

He made his name in the ring but continued his fight, campaigning on issues of war, race and class.

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Most notably he was banned from boxing and stripped of his titles for his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, on the grounds he was a conscientious objector. He famously said:

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America."

He later went on to return to boxing and spoke out repeatedly against racism and Islamophobia following the 9/11 attacks, earning him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the States.

Colin Kaepernick

While not a name widely known, Kaepernick is responsible for the political movement within the NFL that saw many players kneel during the US National Anthem as a protest of social injustice, especially the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police.

He first knelt during the national anthem in September 2016 and caused an uproar nation-wide that saw him frozen out of the NFL for his on-field political actions.

He has been likened to the modern day Muhammad Ali and has used his platform as an athlete to risk everything to stand up (or kneel) for what he believed in.

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The US Women's Hockey Team

A more recent account of activism within the sporting field is the US Women's Hockey team who this year, threatened to boycott the world championships over wage discrimination within the sport.

The women's ice hockey team has placed in every Olympic Games since 2000 and has also won the world championships seven times in the same time frame. While the men only took home two Olympic and World Championship silver medals over the same period but with drastically different pay packets.

The women boycotted the preseason training camp prompting the USA Hockey board to reconsider it's position and lift the teams wage from $1,000 a month for a six-month season to roughly $70,000 per player annually.

While still a far cry from the men's average salary of over half a million dollars it was a win for the women and a step towards the recognition women's sport deserves.

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St Louis Rams

The Rams made a powerful statement following the death of Michael Brown, another unarmed black teenager shot by a police officer. Players Jared Cook, Stedman Bailey, Kenny Britt, Chris Givens, and Tavon Austin came out of the tunnel at a game with their hands in the air as a display of solidarity.

Their gesture was powerful enough to earn a response from the St. Louis Police Officers Association, however it wasn't a positive reaction.

The community was overjoyed with the support from the team following on from the ongoing protests, the men mimicked the "Hands up, Don't Shoot" message displayed by protesters against police violence and racial profiling.

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Many athletes have taken a stand for issues they're passionate about. Let us know in the comments who else has made an impact on you.

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